Ep#42 Embrace Yoga’s Roots: Moving from Separation to Wholeness and Liberation with Susanna Barkataki

In this episode of Your Story Medicine, I welcome Susanna Barkataki, an Indian yoga practitioner in the Shankaracharya tradition who supports practitioners to lead with equity, diversity and yogic values while growing thriving practices and businesses with confidence.

She is founder of Ignite Yoga and Wellness Institute and runs Yoga Teacher Training programs around the world. Susanna is the author of the book Embrace Yoga’s Roots: Courageous Ways to Deepen Your Yoga Practice.

Susanna is a diversity, accessibility, inclusivity, and equity (DAIE) yoga unity educator who created the groundbreaking Honor {Don’t Appropriate} Yoga Summit with over 10,000 participants.

What are you celebrating about yourself today?

Susanna: I run Yoga Teacher Trainings that are BIPOC-focused. These trainings are usually expensive, running up to a couple thousand dollars. It’s not always accessible to everyone. But with the cohort I’m running right now, 30% of the student body is on some sort of scholarship. That means access for trans folk, queer folk, and Bodies of Color. With this many students on scholarship, the culture of the community shifts, because the folks who don’t normally have access bring so much wisdom and so much collective perspective to the entire program. I’m celebrating that win-win-win-win of success.

How would you describe your medicine?

Susanna: My medicine is moving from separation to wholeness and liberation through the tools of yoga.

How has your ancestral lineage influenced your path today?

Susanna: I remember the mindfulness practices or yoga mantras that my aunties and uncles would share whenever I felt stressed out growing up. My dad is from Hassan, which is the north-east part of India, which itself is a regional minority area of India. My mother is from England. I relied on these practices because I did not feel like I belonged. I didn’t feel like I belonged in England nor in the U.S. to escape racial violence in England. I did feel, though, that I belonged with my extended family who I grew up with in L.A. who were Assamese and Bengali. Part of that belonging was because they emanated yogic ethics and practices and shared them with me. All of that watered the seeds of my life and gave me what I needed to make myself more whole. Instead of feeling like I didn’t belong anywhere, I started to feel like I belonged everywhere. If it worked for me, I knew it could work for others. But I saw no teacher who looked like me nor did I see the yoga that I knew being taught anywhere outside my family. There was this big gap between what yoga truly is and what it’s sold to us as.

How necessary is it to be certified? Can we even call ourselves a “certified yoga teacher” if we don’t embody the philosophies?

Susanna: I strongly believe that people need to embody the roots of the practice. And there are so many ways to teach: We can teach in our nonprofit or corporate jobs, or as entrepreneurs. There’s space for a new model to replace the old structure, and I think it’s going to grow from the ground-up.

How do we avoid culturally appropriating our own practices as we teach yoga in the U.S.?

Susanna: Cultural appropriation is simply stealing, and there’s no one authority—not even myself—who can say what’s cultural appropriation and what isn’t. It’s up to us to realize that. If we’re relying on someone other than ourselves, it’s not as useful as determining it for ourselves. It’s important for us to ask the question of whether or not we’re appropriating our own culture, as well as to discover where you have internalized colonial mindset, since that mindset intentionally puts down our own culture. Fundamentally, though, cultural appropriation is power imbalance and harm to the source culture. Flip that through power sharing.

How can we move beyond being an ally to being an active participant without playing the role of a savior?

Susanna: As an ally, it’s actually my place to listen to others and lift them up. Beyond allyship, it’s accomplice-ship or colleague-ship where I can sit at your feet and learn from you. How can I lift up folks who are at the locus of harm?

How can yoga serve as a tool for liberation without spiritually bypassing all the work it takes to reach this shared goal?

Susanna: “Spiritual bypassing” is using spiritual truth (ex. “We’re all one.”, “Yoga is unity.”, etc.) to bypass the actual lived conditions of separation or inequity or inequality that we’re living in. I tell people that I share this ideal to see us all come together, but we can’t deny our lived experiences. We shouldn’t deny those experiences, but to address what’s truly happening. Yoga has the particular practices of Svadhyaya: “sva” meaning “self” and “dhyaya” meaning “study”. So, “self-study”. There is also Vichara, or “clear seeing” and removing illusions to get to the truth. We’re headed in the direction of wholeness and unity, but we need to clear the way.

How can people begin to embrace yoga’s roots and decolonize their own practice if they already have one?

Susanna: Yoga is one of those paths that has thousands of doorways. You can read yoga philosophy and find a group to study with. You can practice yogic ethics. You can look for yoga classes taught by BIPOC teachers and support them. It makes a huge, huge difference to those teachers and communities. Know that your choices as a participant can have a huge impact.

What would you tell your younger self as a future ancestor?

Susanna: Trust yourself and trust the ancestors to guide you. Don’t worry about it. Keep going, and have a lot of fun.

Conclusion: As it is for any kind of healing, decolonization in the yoga community, even among BIPOC teachers, begins with self-awareness of what one may be culturally appropriating. Yoga has such deep roots that have largely been obscured by Western capitalist whitewashing. We must pinpoint our internalized colonial mindset and use that self-awareness as our catalyst for widespread change.

Action Integration: Find a support group and start studying about true yogic philosophy and ethics. Shine a spotlight on BIPOC teachers and their communities. Your choices as a participant can have a huge impact.


Learn more about Susanna and her offerings:

Visit her website: www.susannabarkataki.com and www.ignitebewell.com

Follow her on Instagram: www.instagram.com/susannabarkataki